Health Matters 2

Once again, my thanks to the many people who have sent items for this column. It is marvellous that so many of you are keen to share your experiences with other ferret owners. It can only be of help to other ferrets. As I mentioned in the last newsletter, I was thinking of putting together some pieces on jills. Thanks to your news and views this has been possible. But, as they say, first here is the news.
Post mortem report.
One PM report this time.
Pancreatic/hepatic tumours

Ulrike Hassold's hob, Igor, aged about 6+ years was put to sleep in December 2000. He had been treated for build up of fluid in his abdomen (ascites). His weight, owing to the fluid had risen from 0.95kg to 1.6 kg over about five months with a slight reduction during the time the first samples were drawn for analysis. An X-ray was taken to see if his heart was normal and a blood test gave normal results.

The fluid sample from his abdomen showed dark blood stained yellow fluid. Unfortunately it was difficult to tell whether the blood staining was due to bleeding at the time the sample was taken or by bleeding occurring in Igor prior to the sample being taken. No conclusive evidence for the cause of Igor's illness was apparent through this analysis although possibilities included cancers and/or hepatic (liver) disease.

Igor did not improve, the fluid built up rapidly, affecting his breathing and causing pain. Ulrike decided to let the vet put him to sleep to save him further suffering. A resultant PM showed a large, probably primary, tumour in Igor's pancreas and several secondaries on and in his liver.

Thank you, Ulrike, for giving us this information. Your experience with Igor may help others. I shall prepare this and other lab reports for the web pages. I should say that I intend to put the full reports on the web to make all the analyses available, so if you want the cell counts etc., that's where to find it, or give me a ring. At the moment I'm still trying to find a balance between making the health news available without too much laboratory jargon, so you must let me know if you think it would be useful to put more of the analysis in these articles.
Lumps and bumps!

It's been quite a time for lumps and bumps, it seems. Often these can be quite big before they are noticeably visible or causing discomfort to the ferret so daily handling and inspecting of your ferrets can frequently lead to you feeling any lumps long before you see them, saving valuable time in getting appropriate treatment. That's what happened with Yogi Beck.
Cutaneous haemangiosarcoma

Yogi didn't know he had one, but his owners, Bill and Ann, felt a small, pea-sized lump above his right shoulder blade. This was successfully removed by surgery. The histology report showed the lump was a highly vascular mass (plenty of blood!) composed of blood clot filled spaces.

This sort of tumour is rather more common in dogs than ferrets and the vet made a guarded diagnosis of cutaneous haemangiosarcoma, a form of cancer tumour which may have about a 30% risk of metastasis i.e. the cancer spreading to other parts of the body. Yogi had not shown signs of illness at all. He was kept at the vets overnight because of the bleeding from the operation site, but otherwise remained well. He has made a good recovery and it just goes to show how prompt veterinary attention can prevent what might have a much more serious problem.
Abdominal tumours

No fancy name for these, although had PM's been performed I'm sure that we could have had the usual multi-syllable label for them! Two cases of extremely large abdominal masses in two elderly ferrets, Sheila's Bumper and our Sorrel, aged about 7 years and 10 years respectively.

In both cases the tumours were easy to feel and, owing to the age of these ferrets, both owners independently decided that surgery was not an option. Instead, the ferrets continued normally until they showed signs of discomfort. In Bumper's case he just became quiet and lost his sparkle. For Sorrel, a secondary tumour flared up in her throat and she showed the first signs of illness in her long life. Both were put to sleep to prevent suffering, the final task that responsible owners must take.

Finally, a word on an 'alternative' therapy - it's workin' for Firkin!

Like many 'conventional' medics, I have reservations about some of the supposedly 'alternative' treatments. Whilst I'm happy to use hypnosis on my human patients for pain relief, and can accept accupuncture for human and animal treatment, I've remained sceptical about what I tend to think as the weird and the wonderful world of crystals, magnets and so forth. However, I may be forced to reconsider!

Firkin is one of our old guard, a big silver hob now aged about 8 years, a former line hob and veteran of many a successful rabbiting venture. As he grew older his back legs grew stiffer with arthritis until he really couldn't manage much walking. Jeff made the old group a 'bungalow', a long, single storied indoor pen which avoided all climbing of ramps etc. It helped, but Firkin was growing worse and no treatment seemed to ease his stiffness or discomfort. Then, at the Town and Country Show, we found that the ferret stand was near to the Magnapulse stall, selling magnetic collars and wristbands for humans and animal use. It started off by me teasing the stall holders that they'd never be able to fit out a ferret - but they did! A small cat collar fits a large hob! Being the caring type, I made Jeff wear a magnetic wristband for while before putting the collar on Firkin. Sheila Crompton joined the fun and wore one, too. Both humans claim they felt relief from aches and pains in the joints although they both had to endure endless jokes about getting stuck to fridges etc!

I can't say they showed huge improvement, I mean they weren't exactly hurtling about like teenagers, but the effect on Firkin was remarkable. Within a few days of wearing his collar he was moving easily. A few days later he was bopping, a week or two later he was tearing around the play tubes like a two year old. This continued for months - then the collar frayed and he lost the magnet. However, the effects lasted for several weeks afterwards before the stiffness crept back. The remedy was simple, I pinched Jeff's leather magnetic band and made it into a collar for Firkin. It's working again so I'll order him another collar so that Jeff can have his wrist band back! The effects won't last forever, I know, but he's an old ferret and he's worked his socks off for us in the past. He owes us nothing, and 30 is a small price to pay for a more comfortable retirement for him.

Well, when I said I'd like your questions and experiences on jills health problems, I wasn't quite prepared for the number of responses! Thank you so much for your time and interest, I was inundated with phone calls, emails and letters. Rather than itemise every call point by point, I've collated them into the main issues of concern.

Quite clearly, the main issue everyone raised was the question of dealing with a jill's reproductive system - what do you do to prevent problems associated with her being in season? Do you give a 'jill-jab', put her to a vasectomised hob, have her spayed, breed from her or do nothing? As it's 'that time of year' it seemed a good idea to concentrate on jills' seasons.

It seems that most people now are aware that they need to do something for their jill. The most current veterinary estimates are that about 50% of entire jills who are left in season will develop some form of illness associated with the effects of oestrogens suppressing the bone marrow functioning, or an increased vulnerability to infection. The question many of you asked was 'what is best for my jill?' and quite a few of you gave me accounts of your own experiences of pros and cons of various options.
Let's take spaying first.
Spaying - ovariohysterectomy

Advantages - permanent removal of ovaries, womb and other reproductive organs. This obviously means no future seasons, no phantom pregnancies or uterine (womb) problems like pyometra, metritis or similar that can arise in entire jills.

Disadvantages - non-reversible, so breeding is impossible; requires surgery and anaesthesia; possible complications if some ovarian tissue is left; can be quite expensive although this varies from vet to vet. I've heard of costs between 15 and 60. If in doubt call me or someone from NFWS to advise.

On the whole, most owners will agree that spaying is the best option for jills who will never be bred from. A lot of rubbish is talked about anaesthetic risks, even by some vets, although this is usually down to lack of experience. Most jills sail through, others are a bit dozy for a day or so.

Choose a time to have your jill spayed when she is fit and well and not in season (although some vets are quite happy to spay a jill in season), and preferably when you have time to keep an eye on her when she comes back. Jills should be at least six months old before the op.

Here's a collection of hints from various contributors about dealing with your post-spay jill.

  • keep her indoors for a few days where you can keep an eye on her. It is important to keep the body temperature up while the anaesthetic wears off. Even though your jill may have seemed to 'come round', the anaesthetic can still give jills dozy spells and they can fall asleep on their way to the food bowl or water dish! This would obviously not be a good thing if they were outside as they could risk hypothermia.
  • keep her on soft bedding until her stitches are removed or, in the case of dissolvable stitches, for about a week to ten days.
  • Don't return your jill to her group until she is well over the operation. Most vets say about six weeks although it seems most of us play it by ear and make decisions based on how well she seems, who she will be returning to (i.e. gentle companions vs hyperactive maniacs) and also whether there are hobs in the group. Castrated hobs who are no longer interested in jills can be gentle comforting companions, entire hobs can be a danger to post op jills as they can still smell interesting for a while but will not be recovered enough to withstand roughing up.
  • similarly give her enough time for her stitches to heal before working her.

There are usually few problems with spaying. A couple of cases that have been reported to me involved ovarian remnants being left after the operation. These jills showed signs of coming into season (e.g. enlarged vulva) even though they had been spayed. One jill had her condition identified quickly and had the residual ovarian tissue removed. The other was not diagnosed for some time and developed hyperoestrogenism as if she had been left in season. This involved anaemia, severe hair loss, lethargy and general weakness. Luckily, her caring owners continued to seek veterinary treatment and eventually she was diagnosed and had corrective surgery.

(It is worth noting that adrenal disease may also give the appearance of a jill coming into season, so any signs need checking as quickly as possible)
Jill-jabs - 0.5ml proligestone

Well, you seem to either love them or hate them! Many of you find them quick, efficient and easy solutions, others report that your jills found them painful or became, if not actually ill, 'off colour, or had poor coats.

Advantages - non-surgical, quick, effective and non-permanent. Can be given to jills in season or about to come into season.

Disadvantages - involves quite a considerable dose of hormones; little knowledge about prolonged, repetitive use. A minority of jills may need two jabs each year. Can be dangerous if given to jills who are already pregnant as it halts the normal pregnancy and can lead to mummification of the developing foetuses. Occasionally, jills do not come into season the following spring, causing problems with any plans for breeding.

I guess I had equal votes from people who contacted me as to whether they liked or disliked the jill-jab. Costs also seem variable across vets, ranging from 2 - 10 per jab. I've had both sorts of experiences with jill jabs, jills that have been fine and jills that have most definitively lost their sparkle for a few months. One jill that came into us had been given a jill-jab at the RSPCA and subsequently turned out be have been pregnant. She went through what we assumed was a phantom pregnancy but which extended to 45 days when there was a dark discharge from her vulva. She needed an emergency spay operation to prevent her becoming dangerously ill.

On the whole, I use jill jabs only when I am reluctant to spay a jill, usually because she is a recent rescue and we are unhappy about her health and subjecting her to an operation. We do not breed our ferrets and prefer to spay as soon as is practical but, on the whole, jill jabs can be useful as short-term, temporary solutions to bringing a jill out of season providing there is no chance of her already being pregnant. I would welcome any information about pros and cons of using jill-jabs long-term as I am frequently contacted by vets who are anxious to know.
Vasectomised hobs

Since it is the act of mating rather than conception that brings a jill out of season, it is therefore logical to use a hob who has been vasectomised as he will successfully mate a jill but not cause her to become pregnant. This will result in a pseudopregnancy (phantom pregnancy) of normal gestation time (6 weeks)

Advantages - quick, easy, non-surgical, non-chemical.

Disadvantages - will last for only 42 days; some vets believe it elevates risks associated with phantom pregnancy such as metritis (inflammation of the womb) or pyometra (collection of pus in the womb). Typically these occur about two to three weeks after mating.

A lot of you gave your support for the use of a vasectomised hob, and I must admit to having a very soft spot for our sweet-tempered Gizmo who, until his recent 'retirement', fulfilled his duties with gentle but effective efficiency. However, there may be some concerns. I only ever let Gizmo be used for jills we were sure were not carrying infection. 'Borrowing' a hob can be a risk for infection for both jill and hob. Even more alarming, six people contacted me to report cases of pyometra. This is a potentially dangerous condition where the uterus becomes infected and fills with pus. The jill is very ill, depressed, lethargic and may have a vaginal discharge. Some may drink large amounts of water. Four occurred within the first three weeks after the mating with a vasectomised hob, two after what would have been the end of gestation i.e. 6 weeks after mating. Fortunately all six cases were detected and all resulted in emergency spay ops, the jills making a full recovery.

Having said that, it is easy to get alarmist about things, and six cases is small compared to the number of jills put to vasectomised hobs or the health risks involved in leaving a jill in season.

So back to the original question - what is best for your jill? There will always be people who will swear by one method or the other, but at the end of the day it's up to you. Don't be put off by scaremongering about spaying and anaethesia. If you do not intend to breed seriously consider this option. After all, if any of the other methods result in complications your jill will be faced with an emergency spay operation anyway, so why not have it done when she is fit and healthy?

If permanent sterilisation is not a choice for your jill, then maybe the jill-jab is an option, or the use of vasectomised hob, although be watchful for possible post-mating complications.

Whatever you choose, jills are usually tough little beasts whose dainty looks tend to belie the nature and constitution of a prize fighter. It's easy to read or hear about jilly problems and come to conclusion that they are delicate little flowers who are more problems than they are worth. Not so (as anyone meeting Jeff's beloved jills will have noticed!). But they deserve our care and consideration and in return they'll work their little socks off for us.

That's it for this issue. My heartfelt thanks to everyone who gave their views. Anyone want to comment on care of older ferrets for the next newsletter? I'd be pleased to hear from you. Write, email, or phone me.


Health Matters